JERUSALEM — It seems almost Kafkaesque: Ten safety deposit boxes of never-published writings by Franz Kafka, their exact contents unknown, are trapped in courts and bureaucracy, much like one of the nightmarish visions created by the author himself.
The papers, retrieved from bank vaults where they have sat untouched and unread for decades, could shed new light on one of literature's darkest figures.
In the past week, the pages have been pulled from safety deposit boxes in Tel Aviv and Zurich, Switzerland, on the order of an Israeli court over the objections of two elderly women who claim to have inherited them from their mother.
"Kafka could easily have written a story like this, where you try to do something and it all goes wrong and everything remains unresolved," said Sara Loeb, a Tel Aviv-based author of two books about the writer. "It's really a case of life imitating art."
Literary experts in both cities are sifting through the boxes, and the contents are expected to be of priceless literary and monetary value. What exactly is there remains unknown, but the papers include handwritten manuscripts, letters and various literary works by the famed Jewish writer, said Meir Heller, an attorney for the Israeli National Library, which also claims ownership of the trove.
Loeb says the cache could include endings to some of Kafka's major works, many of which remained unfinished in his lifetime.
"We could find out about his methods, his style, how his art was created, how he built a text," she said.
Kafka, a Prague native who wrote in German, was one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, known for his surreal tales of everyman protagonists crushed by mysterious authorities or twisted by unknown shames. His works have become classics, like "The Metamorphosis," in which a salesman wakes up transformed into a giant insect, and "The Trial," where a bank clerk is put through an excruciating trial without ever being told the charges against him.
But the newly emerged writings won't see the light of day until the Israeli court unravels the tangled question of the collection's rightful owner.
The case boils down to the interpretation of the will of Max Brod, Kafka's longtime friend and publisher. Kafka bequeathed his writings to Brod shortly before his own death from tuberculosis in 1924, instructing his friend to burn everything unread.
Brod ignored Kafka's wishes and published most of what was in his possession, including the novels "The Trial," "The Castle" and "Amerika."
But Brod, who smuggled some of the manuscripts to pre-state Israel when he fled the Nazis in 1938, didn't publish everything. Upon his death in 1968, Brod left his personal secretary, Esther Hoffe, in charge of his literary estate and instructed her to transfer the Kafka papers to an academic institution.
Instead, for the next four decades, Hoffe kept the papers in her Tel Aviv apartment and in safety deposit boxes in Tel Aviv and Zurich banks.
She sold some of the items for hefty sums. In 1988, for instance, Hoffe auctioned off the original manuscript of "The Trial" at Sotheby's in London. It went for $1.8 million to the German Literature Archive in Marbach, north of Stuttgart.
When Hoffe died three years ago at age 101, she left the collection to her two daughters, Eva Hoffe and Ruth Wiesler, both Holocaust survivors like herself.
But the Israeli National Library has long claimed the papers, saying Brod intended for the collection to end up in its hands. It filed an injunction against the execution of Hoffe's will.
"As long as Esther Hoffe was alive, she was responsible, she could still say, 'I am handling it,'" said Heller, the library's lawyer. "The late Mrs. Hoffe did not do what the late Mr. Brod asked her to do and deposit the documents in the national library. ... The will was not honored, it was desecrated."
Oded Hacohen, a lawyer for Eva Hoffe, said Brod's will gave the collection to her mother as a gift and gave her the right to bequeath it to the Israel National Museum or any institution of her choosing, in Israel or abroad, under whatever conditions she decides. He cited a 1974 Tel Aviv District Court ruling backing that interpretation and quoting Brod's will.
That means, he said, Eva Hoffe inherited the documents legally and is free to do with them as she pleases, including selling them to the German Literature Archive, which has been negotiating with her to buy the remaining Kafka and Brod papers.
"Esther Hoffe dedicated her life to publishing Brod's works. ... Brod wrote in his will that her family should enjoy the profits," Hacohen said.
Heller retorts that the will only refers to royalties, not ownership, and didn't give Esther Hoffe the right to hand the collection to her heirs. He argued in court that since she failed to pick an archive to receive the documents, the court should do so. Heller contended in court that the Israeli National Library was Brod's first preference, saying he had evidence Brod wrote a later will bequeathing his literary estate directly to it.
The Tel Aviv Family Court ordered the collection opened a year ago, saying it wants to know what is there before deciding who owns it. That ruling won't come until experts are done inspecting the papers, which could take several weeks.
"The library does not intend to give up the cultural assets that legally belong to it and thus to the Israeli and Jewish people," said David Blumberg, chairman of the Israel National Library, which is a nonprofit and non-governmental body.
Ulrich von Buelow, the director of manuscripts at the German Literary Archive, said Brod and Esther Hoffe had frequent discussions with the archive over placing the material there.
"We are interested in having the manuscripts because we have so many others, also from Brod, and so many letters that would complement them," von Buelow said.
Whatever they contain, the piles of handwritten material will keep historians and researchers busy for years, Heller said.
Aside from previously unknown versions of Kafka's work, the trove could give more insight on Kafka's personal life, including his relationship with his lover, Dora Diamant. It may include papers that Kafka gave to Diamant but were stolen by the German Gestapo from her Berlin apartment in 1933, later obtained by Brod after World War II.
Loeb suspected that Brod kept many of the documents away from the public for fear their publication could compromise his friend's legacy.
"Kafka was very critical. He was not an easy man," she said. "Maybe Brod was worried that this could ruin his image."
Associated Press writers Melissa Eddy in Berlin and Bradley Klapper in Geneva contributed to this report.